A Leadership Approach to Conflict Management

May 31, 2016

When you are drawn into a conflict, whether you are in charge of the situation or not, you can step into a leadership role. Leaders promote the best outcome for everyone involved based on guiding principles. Use these 7 steps to work toward the best collaborative outcome.

1. Commit to finding common ground

For this to be effective, you have to commit – truly commit. Don’t just pay lip service to try to appease someone. People in conflict are focused on clues the other person is challenging them or manipulating them. They can tell if you aren’t sincere, and that will make things worse.

2. Listen for understanding

One of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is, “Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.” This is an ideal time to honor this standard. In conflict, people want to defend their own position. Someone has to bridge the two or more sides to create agreement. You build the bridge by listening for understanding. Don’t criticize or challenge what the person is saying. Listen to hear that person’s point of view. Ask questions that help you really hear the details of what they are saying, whether you agree or not.

3. Summarize what you have heard

You don’t have to agree with the person to understand their position. But you have to understand what’s important to them. State back to them the summary of what they have explained to you. When possible, include their values, priorities, needs, and expectations that lead them to take their stand. Avoid language or even a tone of voice that mocks, diminishes, or devalues their point of view. Just state their position, as you understand it, in a neutral way.

4. Expand the conversation to include other points of view

Now that you have shown respect for the other person and heard their point of view, you can add to their understanding. State your agreement with whatever part of their position you can. Then add the considerations from other people they haven’t included, including your own. Use a phrase like, “There’s more to consider,” or, “Other people are affected,” or, “I’d like you to consider how this affects me.” Do not argue away their position. Do not advocate for your position or another person’s position. Just objectively state what else is at stake besides what they want.

5. Ask for suggestions to address the expanded situation

You may have a compromise in mind already, or you may see there aren’t many options. It’s not yet time to state that. Invite the other person or people to come up with their suggestions for a path forward that considers the expanded situation with all points of view. Ask a question like, “What can we do that will respect what you’re trying to do and still respect Jan’s position?” If possible, encourage them to come up with more than one suggestion.

6. Evaluate and define what outcomes are possible

Once you have created the list of suggestions for how to proceed, review them. Evaluate and state the likely outcome for each clearly. Tell them what you can do that is on the list, what you would like to do but cannot, and what you cannot or will not do based on rules or values. Don’t say something cannot be done just because you don’t prefer it. Stay neutral for now. Do give your evaluation of how each possible outcome is likely to affect the people involved.

7. Seek agreement on a path forward

Now everyone involved has a clear understanding of what each persons wants to happen. You have a clear understanding of what is possible and can rule out what is not allowed. You have a clear understanding of the cost and impact of the different options on each person. It is much easier to get agreement from people when everyone considers all sides.

Ask what seems best for everyone, considering all factors. Then offer your opinions and preferences. Discuss and negotiate around the details where necessary. If there is agreement and everyone can commit, you have a collaborative solution.

If there is not agreement, the person in charge has to choose the path that balances the needs and preferences of everyone involved. It’s a less desirable outcome, but by incorporating all points of view it usually produces more acceptance and less tension than a solution imposed without discussion.

This post originally appeared in the Grapevine Chamber of Commerce Blog as part of the Experts Series.

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